Close-Up on Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s "The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood"

An Iranian film as remarkable as the history of its production—edited by the government, banned, stolen, and rediscovered.
Leonardo Goi
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Mohsen Makhmalbaf's The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood (1990) is showing July 5 - August 4 in most countries around the world, and July 12 - August 11, 2018 in the United States, as part of the series MUBI x NANG Present: In & Out.
The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood
The story behind Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood deserves a film of its own. The Iranian director’s portrait of a daughter and father before, during, and after the 1979 Revolution was butchered by the country’s censorship committee shortly after production ended in 1990. Enraged by the alleged counter-revolutionary message, authorities first chopped 25 of the original 100 minutes, slashing another 12 after The Nights premiered at the Fajr Film Festival to crowds so large people had to queue overnight to get a seat. Makhmalbaf was shunned as a traitor, threatened with death, arrested by the secret police and interrogated for hours. A mutilated version of the original cut was later shown to Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei, who ordered the film to be banned and kept in the state’s archives forever.
Except it wasn’t. In 2016, 26 years after its Fajr premiere, the reel was stolen and shipped to London; Makhmalbaf began working on the negative, and the feature was screened at the Venice Film Festival later that same year. The Nights had been rescued. Sure, censors had slaughtered it down to an outrageously short 63-minute cut, but its basic structure and overarching message had been left somewhat miraculously intact—much to Makhmalbaf’s own surprise. The regime had tried to erase The Nights from collective memory—instead, it elevated it to a near-cult status.
The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood is a tale of resilience. It chronicles a few years in the life of Sayeh (Mojgan Naderi), a young nurse working in the suicide ward of an Isfahan hospital, and her father Alaghmand (Manuchehr Esmaili), an esteemed intellectual and anthropology professor. It is professor Alaghmand whom Makhmalbaf zeroes in on first, the camera following the fifty-something as he warns his students against Iran’s toxic relationship with totalitarianism. “In Iran we are nothing but what the authority wants us to be,” Alaghmand warns the class, “if we lack democracy I blame it on our imperial cult—and us worshiping the king like a demigod.”
Anyone familiar with Makhmalbaf’s oeuvre and biography will probably take the words like a déjà-vu. Sentenced to death at 17 for snatching a guard’s gun and trying to kill the Shah Pahlavi, Makhmalbaf was deemed too young to be killed, and locked in prison for a few years instead. It was here—as a cellmate to the brother of the supreme leader who would later hunt him down (oh, the irony!)—that he began to wonder whether Iran’s complacency with its ruthless post-revolutionary regime was in fact a product of the country’s submissive political culture.
The Nights echoes Makhmalbaf’s concerns, and Alaghmand embodies them as an ever-impartial intellectual unwilling to side with either the revolutionaries or the Shah, all too aware that revolutions are simply cosmetic edits to otherwise unmovable, unchangeable power structures. “I like neither dictatorship nor liberalism: my philosophy is love, and my ideal society is one in which everyone loves each other.” It is a peaceful Gandhian utopia that finds no echo in the country Alaghmand inhabits: a painfully humiliating Kafkaesque interrogation has him blindfolded and questioned by the Shah’s authorities—by the time he is allowed to open his eyes, the room he’s been taken into is empty, and a portrait of the Shah stares at him from the ceiling, a panoptic nightmarish figure.
But it is inside the classroom that the outside changes feel more vivid, and so painfully irretrievable. A single, memorable tracking shot encapsulates a whole country on the brink of collapse: the entire classroom engaged in a furious debate, the camera slides past the two opposing sides shouting at each other, while Alaghmand observes his pupils plunging into the mindless fundamentalism he’d spent a whole life trying to rescue them from.
The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood only becomes Sayeh’s after her father and mother Parvaneh (Parvaneh Goharani) suffer a tragic accident: a car runs them over, killing Parvaneh and leaving Alaghmand on a wheelchair. Sayeh spends her nights trying to rescue suicide cases, and returns home to a father who’s lost his will to live. The country keeps changing: the revolutionaries overthrow the Shah, but Makhmalbaf seldom allows the camera to show the unrest, the revolution being observed for the most part from Alaghmand’s window, and reflected in the changing demographics inside Sayeh’s suicide ward, with the Shah’s high cadres swamping the hospital, moribund and poisoned bodies the nurse can do little to help.
Makhmalbaf’s script treats the suicide-trope as a synecdoche: a suicidal man becomes a symbol for a whole country that’s lost its way. “The character of a person is similar to a nation,” Alaghmand observes before a new cohort of students in the wake of Khomeini’s rise to power: “sometimes it decides to commit suicide.” And there’s a near emotionless quality in the way Sayeh and her fellow nurses treat the desperate men—and women—brought to the hospital to puke their guts out, a weirdly cool theatricality in the girl’s gestures and the patients’ convulsions, an alienation that culminates with an impromptu visit by Alaghmand during one of her shifts, the man handing her a gift and then pausing to quietly watch one of her patients cough blood and poison right in front of him. The cultural normalization of violence Alaghmand had condemned in class finds an echo in the physical normalization of self-harm, with suicides treated as routine events—annoyances more than heartfelt tragedies.
And while Alaghmand’s gradual retreat from society gives Makhmalbaf a chance to voice his own alienation as intellectual, Sayeh’s solitude taps into another leitmotif: the director’s penchant for women struggling to vindicate their independence against a deep-seated patriarchy. Here’s a double bill suggestion: couple Makhmalbaf’s The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood with Agnés Varda’s One Sing, the Other Doesn’t. Sayeh develops a critique of Iran’s patriarchy that Varda’s musical feminist manifesto had only vaguely sketched out through the eyes of her French heroine, Pauline. A few minutes into The Nights we are told Sayeh’s fiancé is leaving her to start a family with another woman—by the time he shows up again and begs Sayeh to take him back, she’s toying with the idea of dating one of her suicidal patients. It’s an either-or scenario that begs a fundamental question, which Sayeh finally articulates in what is possibly the film’s greatest exchange. Sitting at a restaurant with her ex-fiancé, her eyes staring blankly through him, she says: “I know I live in a land where women are not as free as men. Sometimes I ask God—Lord, why did you have to make me a woman?”
I started off by saying the story behind The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood deserves a film of its own, but I fear that may not be entirely accurate. The perilous path that led to the film being thoughtlessly slaughtered, Makhmalbaf arrested and humiliated, and the negative finally rescued, is itself somehow part of the film. The obscene mutilation The Nights was subject to did not quite simply reinforce the film’s message and legacy: fiction (a professor waging a helpless war against a totalitarian dictatorship) and truth (a director vindicating his own freedom over and against that same regime) in The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood merge into one. There are moments scattered all throughout it where images play without sound, and subtitles warn the audience this is because the censorship committee deliberately muted the characters’ chats. And there’s a pivotal moment where this happens at the height of professor Alaghmand’s grieving. Heart-broken by his wife’s death and people’s unwillingness to help him save her, he reaches for all the books and papers he’s ever published, opens his window, and throws them down the street. People gather to see what’s happening, but as he shouts at them, no words can be heard.
For all its strenuous efforts to obliterate a film deemed “a threat to national security,” the regime unwittingly played into Makhmalbaf’s hands. It is precisely when Alaghmand’s pain is silenced that Makhmalbaf’s critique feels most piercing, and the director’s pain can be finally sublimated into his own character’s. Khameini’s censorship butchered a work which, now 28 years after its first and only public screening in Iran, is still as powerful and vivid as it must have felt to the thousands that flocked to Teheran in 1990. After all, “it is easy to silence the filmmaker,” Makhmalbaf had written in his Venice director’s note, “but it’s impossible to suppress the cinema.”

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